Vayeishev: Favoritism

November 24, 2021 at 1:23 pm | Posted in Vayeishev | Leave a comment

This week I am having a good time rewriting a Torah monologue from the viewpoint of the snake in the Garden of Eden. I also made some Thanksgiving dishes, and looked over this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev, the beginning of the story about Joseph and his brothers. This essay on Vayeishev comes from the first draft of my book on Genesis.

Joseph Cast into the Pit, by Owen Jones, 1865

The Favorite

Joseph’s ten older brothers are guilty of throwing him into an empty cistern with the intention to kill him, then selling him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt. Their behavior is clearly immoral.

What is less blatant is the unethical behavior of Joseph and his father, Jacob.

Joseph’s unethical behavior

These are the histories of Jacob: Joseph, at age 17, was tending the flock with his brothers, and he was a na-ar with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s women. And Joseph brought dibatam to their father. And Israel loved Joseph most out of all his sons, because he was a son of his old age, and he made him a fancy tunic. (Genesis 37:1-3)

na-ar (נַעַר) = boy, young single man, assistant, servant.

dibatam (דִּבָּתָם) = slander about them, slander of theirs, their bad reputation.  (dibat, דִּבַּת = slander of, bad reputation of + suffix -am, ָם = third person masculine plural.)

Joseph is “a son of his old age”,1 but that is not the only reason Jacob (also called Israel) loves him the most.  Joseph is Rachel’s older son, and the Torah says Jacob loves Rachel more than his other three women, Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah.  When he meets Esau at the Yabok River, Jacob places Rachel and Joseph last, the farthest from harm.  After Rachel dies, Joseph is the person he loves most in the world.

In what way is Joseph a na-ar? At age 17, his role might be to assist some of his adult brothers in the family business.  Joseph is a na-ar with the four sons of Jacob’s concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah.

Perhaps Jacob divided his sons into two groups in charge of different flocks because Leah’s older sons destroyed Shekhem, and he does not trust them to be a good influence on Joseph, his favorite. (Probably Leah’s last three children, who are about the same age as Joseph, are assisting her four adult sons.)

Or perhaps Joseph chose to go out with the sons of the concubines because they are conscious of the inferior status of their mothers, and therefore defer to him.2

Besides being an assistant, Joseph acts like a juvenile (another meaning of na-ar) when he brings dibatam to Jacob.  He might be slandering his brothers.  Or he might be reporting that his brothers are slandering him.  If he were a young child there would be nothing wrong with running to his father and saying the equivalent of “Daddy, Daddy, they said mean words about me!” But at age 17, Joseph should be mature enough to fight his own battles, especially if they are battles of words; later in the story he turns out to be exceptionally intelligent.

The word dibatam refers to any words that harm another person’s reputation, whether they are the truth or slander.  Whether Joseph is lying about his brothers or merely reporting all of their actual bad deeds, he is lowering their reputations. There is no indication in the Torah that he does this to achieve any higher good.

Then he antagonizes his brothers even more by telling them one of his dreams.

Joseph’s Dream of Sheaves, by Owen Jones, 1865

And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it to his brothers, and it added to their hatred of him even more. (Genesis 37:5)

In this first dream, the brothers are binding sheaves, and all of their sheaves bow down to his sheaf. The brothers conclude that their younger brother wants to rule over them like a king.

Joseph’s behavior is ethically unsavory. He harms four of his brothers by making them look bad, and all ten of his older brothers by flaunting his dream of dominance, which makes them feel inferior.

Joseph’s weaknesses

What subverts Joseph’s ability to make better moral choices?

He knows, at least subconsciously, that he has done nothing to earn the status of Jacob’s favorite son; his father dotes on him merely because Rachel was his mother. Since Rachel’s death, Jacob has probably become even more attached to her older son.

Joseph cannot prove that he deserves his father’s esteem, but at least he can prove that the four sons of Jacob’s concubines deserve less esteem than he does by bringing his father bad reports, true or false.

Why does Joseph tell his brothers his dream? Is he too egocentric to realize that it will upset them? Or does he want to upset them, at least subconsciously?

Nobody sees Joseph as an individual; he is only Jacob’s favorite son. Since his mother’s death he has needed attention as a human being, not as a symbol.  Even negative attention is better than none. So he makes another poor moral choice, telling his brothers that according to the predictive world of dreams, they are going to be subservient to him.

Jacob’s unethical behavior

Jacob Blesses Joseph and Gives him the Coat, by Owen Jones, 1865

Their father, Jacob, foolishly shows his favoritism when he gives Joseph a fancy tunic. Like Cain, who reacts to God’s unfair favoritism by attacking his brother Abel rather than God, Joseph’s older brothers react to their father’s unfair favoritism by attacking their brother rather than Jacob.

At first their attacks are only verbal: they never speak a peaceful word to him.3  Then Joseph tells them two of his dreams.

In Joseph’s second dream the sun, the moon, and eleven stars bow down to him.

And he told it to his father and to his brothers, and his father rebuked him, and said to him: “What is this dream that you dreamed? Will we actually come, I and your mother and your brothers, to bow down to the ground to you?” And his brothers were jealous of him, and his father observed the matter. (Genesis 37:10-11)

Joseph’s Second Dream, by Owen Jones, 1865

Jacob interprets the sun and moon as representing himself and Rachel (deceased), and the eleven stars as Joseph’s eleven brothers (including little Benjamin, Rachel’s youngest). It is not clear whether Jacob rebukes his favorite son for the content of the dream, or for telling it to his family. He observes that the dream makes Joseph’s brothers jealous, but he does not seem to be aware that he contributed to their jealousy by giving only Joseph an upper-class tunic.

Then Jacob’s ten older sons take the family’s flocks to Shekhem. Jacob gives Joseph instructions that might be straightforward—or might imply he does not trust his other sons, and he wants Joseph to continue acting as a tattletale.

And he said to him: “Go, please, see about the well-being of your brothers    and the well-being of the flock, and return word to me.” (Genesis 37:14)

Jacob knows that his older sons resent Joseph, but it does not occur to him that they hate Joseph so much they would consider murdering him.

Jacob’s weaknesses

Why does Jacob listen to Joseph’s bad reports about his brothers?

Subconsciously he may realize that his partiality for Joseph is based only on his love for the boy’s mother. (The Torah does not mention Joseph’s good looks or intelligence at this point.) If Jacob knew that Joseph actually was superior to his brothers, he would have less reason to feel guilty for his preferential treatment. So when Joseph gives him bad reports about at least four of his brothers, Jacob is happy to believe him.

Why does he send Joseph on a journey of several days4 to check up on his older brothers?

Perhaps he is merely worried that his older sons are up to no good. Or perhaps Joseph’s second dream has alerted his father that his favorite son is either narcissistic or dangerously naive. Traveling alone to Shekhem might teach Joseph more independence and give him time to reflect. He might even encounter God, as Jacob did when he traveled alone to Charan.

Those are charitable explanations. But it is also possible that Jacob is simply in the habit of soliciting more evidence that his bias toward Joseph is justified. The collusion between the father and his favorite son would make them seem closer, and that would reinforce Jacob’s bad  habit of asking Joseph to inform on his brothers.

Jacob is too narcissistic to realize that his own behavior is lowering Joseph’s moral standards. When he dispatches Joseph to Shekhem to check up on his brothers, he is too narcissistic to realize that he is jeopardizing his favorite son’s life.

When Joseph finally catches up with his brothers,

Joseph Sold into Slavery, by Owen Jones,1865

They said, each man to his brother: “Hey!  Here comes the master of dreams!  And now let’s go murder him, and let’s throw him into one of these pits, and we can say a wicked beast ate him.  Then we’ll see what happens to his dreams!”  (Genesis 37:19-20)

They do not murder Joseph, but they do sell him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt.

Small unethical deeds can have big consequences.

  1. Commentators disagree on Jacob’s age when his son Joseph is born. When Jacob leaves for Charan we know he is over 40 (Genesis 26:34); Nachmanides (13th-century rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, a.k.a. Ramban) wrote that he is 84.  (Like some other fabulously aged heroes of Genesis, Jacob has no problem with sex and physical labor after 80.)  Joseph is born 14 years after Jacob arrives in Charan (Genesis 29:14, 19-20, 27, 30; Genesis 30:25).  Although Leah’s youngest sons, Issachar and Zebulun, are born in the same year or two as Joseph, only Joseph is called the “son of his old age”.  Nachmanides explained that when Jacob was well over 100, he must have picked Joseph to be the son who took care of his physical needs in old age.
  2. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Bereshis, p. 706.
  3. Genesis 37:4.
  4. Jacob believes his ten oldest sons are pasturing the flocks in Shekhem, which is about 50 miles (80 km) from his home in Hebron. When Joseph arrives at Shekhem he learns that his brothers have gone on to Dotan, so his journey is even longer.

Vayishlach: Message Failure

November 18, 2021 at 7:13 pm | Posted in Vayeitzei, Vayishlach | Leave a comment

If you have wronged someone, and many years later you want to make amends, how can you arrange a meeting in a way that will reduce your former victim’s hostility? How can you word your message so they will show up calm enough to listen to you?

This question of moral psychology comes up in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (“And he sent”), when Jacob sends a message to his estranged brother Esau. I wrote about it in the first draft of my book on moral psychology in Genesis. Now I am laboring mightily over a complete rewrite of the book, but I still like this essay.

Message to a Brother

Esau Sells his Birthright, by Rembrandt

When Jacob leaves Beir-sheva in Canaan and heads for Charan, he is already guilty of cheating Esau twice. First he trades a bowl of lentil stew to his famished brother in exchange for Esau’s rights as the firstborn.1 Then he impersonates Esau in order to steal a prophetic blessing from their blind father, Isaac.2

Jacob cheats because he feels cheated. Why should his twin brother get twice as much inheritance, just because he emerged from the womb a few seconds earlier? Why should their father give Esau the blessing and leave him unblessed? It is not fair.

Yet the story of Jacob indicates that he also has a guilty conscience; he knows his own actions were not fair, either. So he obeys his parents without a murmur when his mother tells him to flee from Esau’s anger, and his father tells him to go get a bride from his uncle Lavan’s family in Charan. And he slinks away on foot without taking any valuables to offer as a bride-price. Jacob’s family is rich, but he chooses to leave home as a pauper.3

In the Torah portion Vayeitzei, Jacob works for Lavan for twenty years, then leaves the town of Charan with two wives (Lavan’s daughters), two concubines (his wives’ personal servants that they gave to him), twelve children, and a wealth of moveable property. Lavan chases after him and complains that Jacob stole everything from him.

This time Jacob denies any wrongdoing, pointing out that he served Lavan fourteen years for his two daughters, Leah and Rachel, and six years for his share of the flocks. This is a reminder to Lavan that he had only offered to work seven years for Rachel, but Lavan “changed his wages” by tricking him into marrying Leah, and then working an extra seven years to get Rachel, too.4 Compared to that, deceiving Lavan with a secret breeding program in order to get larger flocks from his last six years of labor hardly balances the scales.5

Jacob walks away from Lavan free of guilt. But he still has not cleared his guilt over cheating Esau.


Jacob’s unethical behavior did no long-term harm to Esau, who now has everything Jacob thought he was stealing. The firstborn rights have not come into play, since their father is still alive, but it no longer matters who gets the most inheritance. The first part of the blessing Jacob thought he had stolen from Esau is now true for both of them:

“And may God grant you

From the dew of the heavens and from the fat of the earth

And an abundance of grain and wine.

May peoples serve you

And may tribes bow down to you.” (Genesis/Bereishit 27:28-29)

Both men now have abundant possessions and plenty of food, and each brother is the head of his own tribe (though Esau’s is larger).

Jacob is heading for Canaan, where their parents live, not Se-ir, where Esau rules. For once he does not want what his brother has.His route to Canaan goes west along the Yabok River, then crosses the Jordan north of the Dead Sea. The hills of Se-ir are south of the Dead Sea, more than 150 miles (240 km) away from Jacob’s camp on the Yabok. If he merely continued his journey, he would be settled in Canaan long before any news of his whereabouts reached Esau.

Instead Jacob deliberately lets Esau know where he is camping.

Then Jacob sent messengers ahead to Esau, his brother, to the land of Sei-ir, the field of Edom. (Genesis 32:4)

However nervous Jacob might be about a confrontation, he wants to meet with his brother as soon as possible, and get it over with. I suggest that all he wants is to make reparations for his past misdeeds, whether Esau needs them or not. Then he can forgive himself, and maybe Esau will forgive him.

He does not know whether Esau still wants to kill him. When the twins were younger, Esau was impulsive and changeable. But twenty years have passed, and Esau must have learned how to plan ahead, or he would not have become the chieftain of a tribe. He might also have been planning his revenge during those twenty years.

So Jacob takes a chance when he sends messengers all the way to his brother in Se-ir. His action is both ethical and brave.

Jacob words his message carefully.

And he commanded them, saying: “Thus you shall say to my lord, to Esau: Thus said your servant Jacob: Garti with Lavan, and I delayed until now. And I came to own ox and donkey, flock and male-slave and female-slave. And I send to tell my lord, to find favor in your eyes.” (Genesis 32:5-6)

garti (גַּרְתִּי) = I sojourned, I stayed as a foreigner. (A kal form of the verb g-r, גּור = stayed as a geir, גֵּר= a foreigner.)

Jacob instructs his messengers to say the message is from “your servant, Jacob”, and to quote him as saying “to tell my lord, to find favor in your eyes”. He wants Esau to know that he considers Esau his senior and superior, as if the sale of the firstborn rights had never happened.

Why does Jacob say he was a geir in Charan, even though he is Lavan’s nephew and son-in-law? Rashi wrote that Jacob’s subtext is: “I have become neither a prince nor other person of importance but merely a sojourner. It is not worth your while to hate me on account of the blessing of your father who blessed me (27:29) ‘Be master over thy brethren’, for it has not been fulfilled in me.”6

Jacob probably mentions his livestock and servants because he wants Esau to know that he is already wealthy, so he no longer needs the inheritance of the firstborn. He also says that he delayed (by twenty years!) his return to Canaan. This implies that he earned his wealth through years of labor, not because of Isaac’s blessing.

Having sent a message intended to show Esau that he is not benefiting from either the firstborn rights or the stolen blessing, Jacob waits for news of Esau’s reaction.

Jacob Sees Esau Coming to Meet Him (with an army), by J.J. Tissot

And the messengers returned to Jacob saying: “We came to your brother, to Esau, and moreover he is on his way to meet you, and 400 men are with him.” And Jacob became very frightened … (Genesis 32:7-8)

Four hundred men count as am l independent army in the Torah.7 If Esau is still angry at Jacob, then he can use his army kill his brother and take over his people. If Esau, too, is frightened and anxious, then his army would be good to have on hand in case their meeting goes badly.


Esau might view Jacob’s message as a challenge dressed up in polite language. Here is one way Esau might misinterpret his brother’s words:

Thus said your servant Jacob— “Ah, he’s using the standard polite formula, instead of treating me like a brother.”

Garti with Lavan— “He’s been staying all this time with our mother’s brother? I don’t call that living as a foreigner! I suppose Lavan adores him, just like Mother always did. And Lavan probably taught him some new tricks.”

And I delayed until now— “Of course he delayed. Why would he want to see me again? Or our poor father? He already got everything he could out of us.”

And I have ox and donkey, flock and male-slave and female-slave— “Oh, so he’s rich now, and bragging about it. But he’s still coming back to collect his inheritance when Father dies. I wonder how many men he has, and if they are armed for battle?

And I am sending to tell my lord, to find favor in your eyes— “More polite language, pretending I’m his lord! We both know he got the upper hand over me long ago. Does he wants my favor now so he can safely ignore me? Or is he trying to pacify me before he springs on me? Well, I have four hundred men at my command now. If we start marching north today, we can surprise Jacob. And then maybe, just maybe, I’ll have a chance to hold my own against him.”

This is only my midrash; Esau’s reactions to Jacob’s careful message are not recorded in the Torah. But Esau does march north immediately with 400 men.


If Jacob had anticipated Esau’s response, he would have sent a different kind of message. What if Jacob called Esau not “my lord”, but “my older brother”? What if he said he wanted to see his brother again so he could apologize? Esau might not have mustered his 400 armed men.

But Jacob is so cautious, he does not say enough. Although he is trying to make amends for his past misdeeds, he is unable to approach the problem head-on. By trying to avoid a confrontation with Esau, Jacob makes confrontation more likely.

  1. Genesis 25:29-34.
  2. Genesis 27:1-36.
  3. See my 2011 post Vayeitzei: Guilty Conscience.
  4. Genesis 31:38-43. Lavan tricked Jacob into marrying Leah and paying an additional bride-price in labor (Genesis 29:23-27).
  5. Jacob tricked Lavan by asking for the spotted kids and dark lambs as his wages, so he could conduct his secret breeding program (Genesis 30:31-43).
  6. Rashi, translation in
  7. David has 400 men in 1 Samuel 22:2 and 25:13.



November 3, 2021 at 9:46 pm | Posted in Chayei Sarah, Lekh Lekha, Noach, Toledot, Vayeitzei | Leave a comment

Why is there so much inbreeding in the book of Genesis/Bereishit? After the first two Torah portions, most of the major characters are descended from Abraham’s father, Terach, through multiple lines. The branches of their family tree keep growing together again.


The Torah does not say how many wives Terach has, but it does name four of his children at the end of the Torah portion Noach. He has three sons: Avram (whom God renames Abraham), Nachor, and Haran.1 He also has a daughter named Sarai (whom God renames Sarah).2 While they are all living in the southern Mesopotamian city of Ur, Avram and Nachor marry their own relatives.

Avram and Nachor took wives for themselves. The name of Avram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nachor’s wife was Milkah, the daughter of Haran … (Genesis 11:29)

In other words, Avram marries his half-sister, Terach’s daughter, and Nachor marries his niece, Terach’s granddaughter.

Terach leaves Ur and heads toward Canaan with some of his family members. Halfway there they stop and settle in the town of Charan, where Terach dies.3

Thanks to archeology, we know that Charan was an actual city where the main road north from Ur met the main road that went southwest to Canaan. Both Charan and Ur were dedicated to the moon-god Nannar. The residents of those two cities worshiped many other gods as well, in temples stocked with idols. They also kept terafim, figurines of lesser gods, to protect their households.

Terach would probably acknowledge Nannar, but his primary god might be a different deity. In last week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, both Betueil (son of Nachor and Milkah) and Betueil’s son Lavan use the same four-letter name of God that Avram uses (commonly represented in Roman letters as Y-H-W-H).4 Later in Genesis, Lavan says “Y-H-W-H” has blessed him, and he makes a vow in the name of “the god of Nachor”.5 But he is not a monotheist; he also owns terafim.6

Lekh-Lekha and Vayeira

Does Terach hear the voice of God, Y-H-W-H? The Torah is silent.7 But it is conceivable that he starts traveling toward Canaan because he hears the same voice in Ur that his son Avram hears  in Charan:

“Go for yourself, away from your land and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)

For Avram, that land turns out to be Canaan.

Avram hears God’s voice many more times in the portions Lekh-Lekha and Vayeira. On five occasions God promises him that his descendants will inherit the land of Canaan.8 God informs him that first those descendants will be enslaved in another land for 400 years.9 God demands circumcision for every male in his household and all of his future descendants, alters the names of Avram and Sarai, and promises that Sarai (now Sarah) will have a son at age 90.10 Avram (now Abraham) talks God into agreeing not to wipe out Sodom and Gomorrah if there are even ten innocent people living there.11 When Sarah demands that Abraham cast out his first son, Ishmael, along with Ishmael’s mother, God tells him to do what Sarah says.12

Sarah Hears and Laughs, by James J.J. Tissot

Terach’s daughter Sarah also hears God’s voice. When three men who turn out to be angels visit in the Torah portion Vayeira, she overhears one of them say that she will have a child the following year. Sarah, who is 89, laughs silently. Then she hears God asking Abraham: “Why did Sarah laugh?”

And Sarah lied, saying: “I did not laugh,” because she was afraid. But [God] said: “No, for you did laugh.” (Genesis 18:15)

Abraham and Sarah do have a son. Isaac is probably 26 when his father hears God order him to sacrifice that son on an altar.  God calls him off at the last minute, and Abraham goes home alone.13 Then he gets news from Charan: Nachor and Milkah (Abraham’s brother and niece) had a son named Betueil, and Betueil now has a daughter named Rebecca.14

Chayei Sarah

Abraham arranges a marriage for Isaac fourteen years later, in the Torah portion Chayei Sarah. He insists that Isaac must marry one of his relatives back in the Aramaean town of Charan. He adds the condition that the bride must be willing to move to Canaan, because he wants Isaac to stay in Canaan.

Why does he reject the idea of simply getting Isaac a Canaanite wife?

In last week’s post I proposed that Abraham worries Isaac might stray in his religion, after the trauma of being bound as a sacrifice to his father’s god. (See Chayei Sarah: Arranged Marriage.) Since his extended family in Charan worships Y-H-W-H (among others)15, a wife from that branch of the family would not tempt Isaac away from serving the God of Abraham.

But there is another possible reason for marrying Isaac to one of his relatives. Perhaps Abraham believes his covenant with God can be best continued through the generations if as many of his descendants as possible can hear God’s voice. For that, more inbreeding might help.

Rebecca may be exactly the young woman Abraham has in mind as a bride for Isaac. After all, she is descended from Terach through both Nachor and Milkah. She agrees to go to Canaan, and marries Isaac.


In Toledot, this week’s Torah portion, Rebecca is alarmed by her pregnancy; it feels as though a wrestling match is taking place in her womb.

And she went to inquire of God. And God said to her: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will branch off from your belly. One people will be mightier than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:22-23)

The text does not say where Rebecca goes to inquire of God; some commentary suggests that she consults an oracle.  But the text does say that God speaks directly to her, and it uses the name Y-H-W-H. The voice of God is correct; Rebecca has twins, Esau and Jacob, who eventually found two peoples in the Torah: the Edomites and the Israelites.

Rebecca’s husband Isaac, who is descended from Terach through both Abraham and Sarah, also hears God’s voice.

And God appeared to him that night and said: “I am the god of Abraham, your father. Don’t be afraid, because I am with you, and I will bless you and increase your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.” (Genesis 26:24)

Jacob proves more intelligent and more patient than his twin brother Esau.17 The Torah does not say whether his parents realize that Jacob is the better candidate to carry on the covenant with God. Isaac fumbles his delivery of the blessing of Abraham, Esau is enraged at the result, and Rebecca tells Jacob to flee to her brother Lavan’s house in Charan. Then she tells Isaac that she is disgusted with the Hittite women Esau married, and she could not bear it if Jacob also married one of the local women.

Isaac calls in Jacob. Rebecca has not told him where to send Jacob for a bride, but Isaac decides to continue Abraham’s family breeding program.

And he said to him: “Do not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan! Rise, go to Padan Aram, to the house of Betueil, your mother’s father, and take yourself a wife from there, from the daughters of Lavan, your mother’s brother.” (Genesis 28:1-2)

Thus he orders Jacob to marry one of his first cousins, who also carries more than the usual share of Terach’s blood (or genes).


Jacob’s ladder, German 14th century

As soon as Jacob leaves home he, too, hears the voice of God. In next week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, he dreams of God’s angelic messengers ascending and descending between heaven and earth, and then sees God standing over him. God confirms that the blessing of descendants who will inherit Canaan has gone from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob.

And [God] said: “I am God [Y-H-W-H], the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. The land which you are lying on I will give to you and to your descendants.” (Genesis 28:13).

Jacob marries both of Lavan’s daughters, and their eight sons (plus Jacob’s four sons with Lavan’s daughters’ servants) become the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Being able to hear God is not a unique trait of Terach’s descendants. Before the Flood, God converses with Adam and Eve, Cain, and Noah. After the flood, God speaks twice to Hagar the Egyptian and once to Avimelekh of Gerar.18 But most of God’s words in the Genesis are addressed to Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, and Jacob, all inbred descendants of Terach.19

There is no record in the Torah of God speaking to any of Jacob’s children. Perhaps a few of them would be able to hear God’s voice, but God chooses to be “with” them without words. It may be enough for God that all the inbreeding among Terach’s descendants results in the genesis of the Israelite people. The next time God speaks in the Torah is in the book of Exodus when God needs a prophet to bring the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan, and chooses Moses.20


In the Torah, God is one of the characters, and converses with some of the human characters. Is this only a literary device to make the stories juicier? Or does it also reflect some deeper truth?

When individuals today claim to have heard God’s voice, how can we tell whether they have heard an external power of the universe, or a hidden part of their own minds?

Is there a difference?

  1. Genesis 11:26-27.
  2. Genesis 20:12 (unless Abraham is lying).
  3. Genesis 11:31.
  4. Genesis 24:50-51.
  5. Genesis 30:27 and 31:51-53.
  6. Genesis 31:19.
  7. In a 5th century C.E. story attributed to Rabbi Chiya, Terach made idols for a living, and Abraham mocks them (Bereishit Rabbah, 38:13). This fable enhanced Abraham’s reputation with a Jewish audience, but the Hebrew Bible itself never mentions idols in connection with Terach.
  8. Genesis 12:7, 13:14-17, 15:1-7, 15:17-21, 17:1-8.
  9. Genesis 15:13-16.
  10. Genesis 17:9-22.
  11. Genesis 18:20-33.
  12. Genesis 21:9-13.
  13. Genesis 22:1-2, 22:11-19.
  14. Genesis 22:20-23.
  15. Joshua 24:2.
  16. Genesis 25:27-28.
  17. See Genesis 25:29-34, in which Esau can only think about eating, but Jacob cooks stew ahead of time and is prepared to bargain for Esau’s birthright.
  18. Hagar hears God in Genesis 16:7-13 and 21:17-18. Avimelekh hears God in a dream in Genesis 20:3-7.
  19. Lavan, Rebecca’s brother, also hears God in a dream (Genesis 31:24).
  20. Exodus 3:1-4:23.


Chayei Sarah: Arranged Marriage

October 28, 2021 at 11:51 am | Posted in Chayei Sarah | 1 Comment

This week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah (“Life of Sarah”), opens with Sarah’s burial, then tells the story of the arranged marriage of Sarah and Abraham’s son, Isaac.  The following essay comes from the first version of my book on moral psychology in Genesis, which I am now rewriting.

Wedding, Minhagim, 1707 Amsterdam

When is an arranged marriage ethical?  The story in Chayei Sarah offers some clues.

Ignorant Groom

When Isaac turns 40 years old he is still unmarried.  So his father, Abraham, commissions his steward1 to get Isaac a wife.  Abraham asks him to swear a formal oath:

“… that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I am living.  Instead, you must go to my land and my homeland, and [there] you will take a wife for my son, for Isaac.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 24:3-4)

Abraham’s homeland is the town of Charan in northern Mesopotamia,2 where the family of Abraham’s nephew Betueil still lives.

Isaac is not present when Abraham gives these orders to his steward.  He has lived apart from his father for the past fourteen years, ever since Abraham put a knife to his throat to sacrifice him to God. 3  During that time Abraham has stayed at Beir-sheva, and Isaac has settled at Beir-Lachai-Roi.4  There is no indication in the book of Genesis of any communication between father and son after the near-sacrifice.

But since God promised that Isaac’s descendants would inherit the land of Canaan and his father’s covenant with God,5 Abraham decides it is high time for his son to marry.

And the servant said to him: “What if she does not consent to follow me to this land?  Shall I bring your son back to the land that you left?”  (Genesis 24:5)

Abraham rejects this option.

“And if the woman will not follow you, then you are free from this oath of mine.  Only you must not take my son there!”  (Genesis 24:8)

Abraham’s requirements are 1) that Isaac’s wife must come from Charan, and 2) that she must be willing to move to Canaan.

1) Why must the bride come from Charan?

I suspect that Abraham does not trust Isaac to continue worshiping his father’s god.  Since Isaac rejected his father after the attempted sacrifice, he might also reject God.  A Canaanite wife would probably persuade him to worship her own gods.  But Abraham’s extended family in Charan recognizes the God of Abraham as at least one of their gods.

When Abraham’s steward arrives at the well in Charan he prays to Abraham’s God for a particular sign.6

Rebekah Meets Abraham’s Servant, New World Encyclopedia

“May it be the young woman to whom I say: “Please lower your water jar so I may drink,” and she says: “Drink, and also I will water your camels”—may she be the one you assigned for your servant, for Isaac.”  (Genesis 24: 14)

At once Rebecca, the daughter of Abraham’s nephew Betueil, comes and does so.  After she has watered all ten camels, he asks for lodging for the night, follows her home, and tells his story to her brother and parents, including the four-letter name of Abraham’s God.  Their initial response defers to the same god.

And Lavan and Betueil answered, and they said: “From God [Y-H-V-H] the matter went out; we are not able to speak to you bad or good.  Here is Rebecca in front of you. Take [her] and go, and she will be a wife to the son of your master, as God [Y-H-V-H] has spoken.”  (Genesis 24:50-51)

2) Why must the bride be willing to move to Canaan?

One possible marriage arrangement in the Ancient Near East was for the husband to leave his parents and live with his wife’s family.7

But Abraham does not want to give Isaac any pretext to move out of Canaan, because God promised to give the land of Canaan to his descendants through Isaac.

Abraham’s steward journeys to Charan and arranges the marriage without the knowledge of the groom.  We can deduce that no one informs Isaac that a marriage is being arranged for him, because  Isaac is walking home from the well of Beir-Lachai-Roi one evening when he is surprised to see a string of camels.

… and he raised his eyes and he saw—hey!—camels coming!  (Genesis 24:63)

Recent archaeological evidence shows that domesticated camels were not introduced to Canaan until 930-900 B.C.E., when the pharaoh called Shishak conquered the kingdoms of Judah and Israel and used camels to transport copper.  The Abraham stories are set perhaps a thousand years earlier, when domesticated camels were only seen in Egypt and Arabia. But  Isaac would know that his father kept camels descended from the camels Pharaoh gives him in Genesis 12:16.

After fourteen years, the sight of Abraham’s camels surprises him.

Consenting Bride

Before Abraham’s steward asks Rebecca if he can stay in her father’s house for the night, he gives her a gold nose-ring and two gold bracelets.  Rebecca would know that these gifts are preliminaries for a marriage arrangement.  The steward is kindly giving her an opportunity to speak up privately before he approaches her family.

She merely invites him, his camel drivers, and the camels home for the night.  Rebecca’s family agrees to the match, and the steward distributes gifts (the bride-price) to them.  Now all the needs to determine is whether she is willing to move to Canaan.  He asks Rebecca’s brother and mother to let him leave without delay.

And they called Rebecca and they said to her: “Will you go with this man?”  And she said: “I will”.  So they sent off Rebecca, their kinswoman, and her nursemaid and the servant of Abraham and his men.  (Genesis 24:58-59)

Rebecca is at least fourteen years old,8 so she is a legal adult, qualified to make vows—and ethically qualified to make her own decisions.  Rebecca’s brother Lavan is not morally upright in his dealings with Jacob later in the book of Genesis, but here he and his mother do the right thing by asking for the bride’s consent.  She willingly commits herself to a man she has never met and a land she has never seen.

Consenting Groom

And Rebecca raised her eyes, and she saw Isaac and she fell down from on top of the camel.  And she said to the servant: “Who is that man, the one walking through the field to meet us?”  And the servant said: “He is my master.”  Then she took the tza-if and she covered herself.   (Genesis 24:64-65)

tza-if (צָעִיף) = shawl, veil.  (The story of Jacob’s first wedding in Genesis 29:21-25 depends on the assumption that brides cover their faces.)

A train of ten camels would be surprising enough.  Isaac must have been even more surprised to see a young woman suddenly put on a wedding veil.

Isaac and Rebekah, by Simeon Solomon, 1863

And the servant related to Isaac all the things that he had done.  Then Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah, his mother.  And he took Rebecca and she became his wife, and he loved her.  And Isaac felt a change of heart after [the death of] his mother.  (Genesis 24:66-67)

Isaac falls in love with Rebecca when he consummates the marriage with her. But why does he accept the marriage arrangement and bring her into his tent, which was once his mother’s tent?

One answer is that Isaac makes the ethical choice of considering Rebecca on her own merits, rather than rejecting her because his father arranged the marriage without his consent.

Another answer is that Isaac makes the ethical choice of refraining from doing harm to the young woman.  After Rebecca leaves her home and travels with the steward for about 650 miles (1046 km) to consummate her already-contracted marriage, she can hardly go back to her family in Charan and ask them to return the bride-price; her family would be shamed, and her chance of marrying someone else would be small.

Fortunately Isaac does not face a choice between ruining her life or his own, since he finds Rebecca more than acceptable.  But Abraham was morally wrong to impose a marriage that his son could not ethically refuse.

The arranged marriage could have been ethical, if Abraham had told his son what he was arranging, and Isaac had not objected.  But when he arranges the marriage without the groom’s consent he is treating Isaac as his property, like a prize ram whom he can unilaterally choose to slaughter or breed.

Abraham makes an unethical choice because he believes that Isaac is weak and easily influenced.  He does not trust his son to pick out the right wife, and he thinks that if Isaac visited the family in Charan before the wedding they might persuade him to stay there.  No wonder he sends his steward to arrange the marriage and bring back the bride!  But even if his assessment of Isaac’s character were true, an adult should have the right of consent to his own marriage.

An arranged marriage can be as ethical as one initiated by the couple themselves, but only if there are exit strategies for both balking brides and grudging grooms.

  1. The Torah calls him “the senior servant in his household who ruled in all that was his” (Genesis 24:2). He is not named in the Torah portion Chayei Sarah, but many commentators have identified him as Eliezer of Damascus from Genesis 15:2-3.
  2. Genesis 12:1-4.
  3. Sifrei Devarim 357:33 and Bereishit Rabbah 81:5 make a convincing argument that Isaac is 26 at the Akeidah, when Abraham almost slaughters him (Genesis 22:1-13). (See my post Lekh-Lekha & Vayeira: Going with the Voice.)  Isaac is 40 when he marries Rebecca (Genesis 25:20).
  4. Abraham is in Beir-sheva in Genesis 22:19. Isaac lives near Beir-Lachai-Roi in Genesis 24:62 and 25:11.
  5. Genesis 17:7-8, 17:19-21, 22:15-18.
  6. In other words, the steward specifies a young woman who is hospitable, generous, and strong. She must be strong to water ten camels; after a long journey, one camel can drink 25 gallons (95 liters) of water.
  7. The stories about Abraham’s family are probably set sometime between 1800 and 1500 BCE, when Aram was a region of Assyria in northern Mesopotamia, and would have followed the Babylonian customs during the reign of Hammurabi. The Code of Hammurabi includes three laws about when a married couple lives with the wife’s parents (Laws 159-161 listed in  Genesis 31:41 confirms that Jacob and his two wives live with their father for 20 years.
  8. In Genesis 22:20-23 Abraham receives news that his brother Nachor has a son called Betueil and a granddaughter called Rebecca (Rivkah) “after these things”, i.e. his near-sacrifice of Isaac. That makes Rebecca at least fourteen years old when Abraham’s steward comes to Charan.  A girl attains her majority six months after the first sign of puberty according to Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 6:4.



Vayeira: Failure of Empathy

October 22, 2021 at 12:27 pm | Posted in Vayeira | Leave a comment

Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac (artist unknown)

The story of Sarah and Hagar continues in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (“And he saw”). When Ishmael is 14 and Sarah is 90, Sarah finally gives birth to a son of her own. She nurses her miraculous baby for several years, and then Abraham holds a drinking-feast to celebrate his weaning.

Then Sarah saw the son that Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham metzacheik. And she said to Abraham: “Banish that slave and her son! Because the son of that slave must not inherit with my son, Yitzchak.” (Genesis 21:9-10)

metzacheik (מְצַחֵק) = mocking, acting crazy, engaging in foreplay, making someone laugh. (The piel participle of the verb tzachak, צָחַק = laughed.)

Yitzchak (יִצְחָק) = (Isaac in English) he laughs, he will laugh. (An imperfect kal form of the verb tzachak.)

Ishmael might be innocently entertaining his little half-brother by acting crazy.1 Or he might be amusing himself at Isaac’s expense. He might be engaging in sexual impropriety with a toddler. Or Isaac might not even be present; Ishmael might be mocking the whole idea of Isaac as Abraham’s heir, telling some of the men at the feast that he, Ishmael, is Abraham’s firstborn son, so of course he will inherit twice as large a share of Abraham’s possessions as Isaac.2

Ishmael Mocks Isaac, by Jan  Luyken, circa 1700

We cannot judge the morality of Ishmael’s action when the Torah does not tell us what he is doing.  Sarah does not discuss Ishmael’s behavior with Abraham; she simply orders him to get rid of the boy so that Isaac will inherit all the family property.

Sarah still bears a grudge against Hagar, too. When she demands that Abraham “banish that slave”, she may be testing him to see if he retains any fondness for his erstwhile lover. Apparently he does not. But he is attached to his son Ishmael.

And the matter was very bad in the eyes of Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham: “Don’t let it be bad in your eyes about the young man or about your slave. Everything that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice, because it is through Isaac your descendants will be identified. And the son of the slave, I will also make him a nation, because he is your seed.” (Genesis 21:11-13)

By speaking as if Abraham also has reservations about driving out Hagar, God implies that he ought to be concerned about her. Without a new master, where will Hagar live, and how will she get food, water, and clothing?

But Abraham washed his hands of any responsibility for Hagar long before. Now he fails to choose the ethical action of providing for Hagar’s welfare after she leaves.

There are no laws in the Torah about freeing a foreign slave like Hagar, or the foreign slave’s child. With the sole exception of the concubine captured in battle,3 the Torah considers foreign slaves as property to be sold or inherited. Yet Abraham obeys God by doing exactly what Sarah demands: instead of selling the mother and child, he frees them by banishing them from his household.

Abraham Sends Away Hagar, by Gustave Dore, circa 1850

And Abraham got up early in the morning and took bread and a goat-skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He put them on her shoulder and with the boy, and he sent her away. And she went astray in the wilderness of Beersheba. (Genesis 212:14)

Sarah says nothing one way or the other about parting gifts for Hagar and Ishmael. It is Abraham’s decision to send them off with only a goat-skin of water and as much bread as they can carry on foot. He is a rich man; he could afford to give them several donkeys laden with food, water, clothing, and silver or trade goods. But he does not.

Abraham might assume Hagar would refill the goat-skin at every spring or cistern on the road south. It does not occur to him that as a woman protected only by a single adolescent boy, she might worry about being raped, and avoid the roadside places where trade caravans stop.

Since she takes a different route, Hagar gets lost in the wilderness.  She and her son drink the last of the water. Ishmael lies down under a bush, and Hagar sits a bow-shot away because she does not want to watch him die. They both cry in isolation.

And she went and she sat herself away from him, the distance of a bow-shot, because she said [to herself]: Don’t let me see the death of my boy! So she sat away from him, and she raised her voice and cried.  (Genesis 21:16)

Hagar can be excused for not following the trade road. She can be excused for not noticing the well when she is suffering from dehydration. But her decision to leave Ishmael to die alone is harder to excuse.

Like Abraham, she has not learned Cain’s lesson and acts as if she is not her own son’s keeper. She might find it painful to watch Ishmael die, but what about him? Ishmael would be comforted if his mother held his hand or said a few loving words as he faded away.

Hagar in the Desert, by Gheorghe Tattarescu, 1870

Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the goat-skin with water and she gave a drink to the young man. And God was with the young man, and he grew big and he settled in the wilderness and he became an archer with a bow. (Genesis 21:19-20)


Why do Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar all make choices that betray a lack of empathy?


Sarah’s choice to use Hagar as a surrogate mother, then discard her and her son once she has her own child, is callous but understandable. Her original idea was that Hagar would remain her devoted slave after giving birth. But Hagar becomes self-important once she is pregnant, and Sarah blames Abraham for encouraging her. (See my post Lekh-Lekha: Belittlement.) Sarah does not adopt the baby after all.3

She feels estranged from both Hagar and Ishmael for fourteen years. It takes only a small incident at Isaac’s weaning feast to remind her that unless she gets rid of Ishmael, he will threaten her own son’s inheritance. She lacks empathy for Hagar and Ishmael, but in her society they are only slaves. At least she only tells her husband to banish them, not to sell them or punish them. And she places no limits on what supplies he can send with them.


Abraham’s lack of empathy is more puzzling. Even if he is not interested in Hagar, the Torah states “And the matter was very bad in the eyes of Abraham on account of his son.” He is attached to his son Ishmael. Rationally, he might assume that since God promised Ishmael would have descendants, his son would survive being sent out into the desert with inadequate supplies. But if he felt empathy for Ishmael, his natural reaction would be to give him ample food, water, and gifts upon saying goodbye.

In the years before this episode, Abraham was much more generous with his nephew Lot. He gave Lot first choice of pasture land, fought the armies of four kings to rescue his nephew when he was captured, and argued with God about God’s plan to wipe out Sodom, where Lot lived.4

The difference might be that Abraham’s wife, Sarah, never expressed any objection to Lot. Abraham is not really hen-pecked; in this week’s Torah portion he banishes Ishmael only after God has told him to do what Sarah says. When Sarah asked him to impregnate Hagar in last week’s portion, Abraham cooperated, but he expressed no reluctance.

In two earlier episodes Abraham passed off Sarah as his sister in order to scam two kings out of bride-prices for her.5 Sarah cooperated, but her feelings about it must have been complicated, and caused complications in their marriage.  Perhaps Abraham’s troubled relationship with Sarah causes an inner denial of his feelings about Ishmael.


And Hagar? She probably feels empathy for her son Ishmael when she believes he is dying, yet she leaves him alone and waits for his death at a distance.

Hagar expresses her empathy by sobbing.  Either she too self-centered to realize that she could comfort Ishmael at the end of his life, or she is not accustomed to overcoming her personal anguish to do the right thing. As a slave, she merely obeyed orders—except for the one occasion when she ran away from Sarah’s abuse, and God told her to go back.6

Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar all treat someone close to them callously. Sarah’s lack of empathy for her own son’s rival is an understandable fault. Hagar feels empathy for her son, but she is psychologically unequipped to do the right thing. Abraham is harder to excuse, since he goes out of his way to act on his empathy for his nephew Lot. His suppression of empathy for his son Ishmael leads to an ethical failure.

  1. One suggestion is that Ishmael got drunk at the drinking-feast. Pamela Tarkin Reis, Reading the Lines: A fresh Look at the Hebrew Bible, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass., 2002, pp. 75-76.
  2. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 103.
  3. Jacob adopts Joseph’s first two sons for inheritance purposes in Genesis 48:5-12 through a declaration followed by holding them on his knees. Earlier in Jacob’s life, his wife Rachel tells him: Here is my slave, Bilhah. Come into her and she will give birth on my knees and I will be built up, even I, through her.” (Genesis 30:3) But the Torah never reports that Sarah holds Ishmael on her knees.
  4. Genesis 13:5-12, 14:11-16, and 18:20-32.
  5. See my posts Lekh-Lekha, Vayeira, & Toledot: The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1 and Part 2.
  6. Genesis 16:6-9.


Lekh-Lekha: Belittlement

October 14, 2021 at 6:19 pm | Posted in Lekh Lekha | 1 Comment

Here is another essay from the first version of my book on moral psychology in Genesis, which I am now rewriting.  The Torah portion this week is the beginning of the Abraham story, Lekh-Lekha (“Get Going” or “Go for Yourself”).



And Sarah, the wife of Abraham, had not borne children to him, and she had an Egyptian domestic slave, and her name was Hagar. And Sarah said to Abraham: “Here, please! God has barred me from bearing [a child]. Come, please, into my domestic slave; perhaps I will be built up through her.” (Genesis 16:1-2)

Hagar (הָגָר) = ha- (הַ) = the + geir (גֵּר) = male resident alien; or ha- (הַ) = the + hitgar (הִתְגָּר) = opposed, struggled with. (Hagar is a foreigner who becomes Sarah’s opponent.)

Sarah is 75 years old and God has never “opened her womb”, enabling a first pregnancy. Maybe she concludes that God must intend Abraham to have descendants through a different woman, so he might as well do it now. Or maybe she hopes to adopt Hagar’s son as her own, so he will support her if she outlives her husband. Maybe she believes that once Abraham has impregnated one woman, God will make it easier for him to do it again, and she will finally give birth.1

Sarah Leading Hagar to Abraham, by Matthias Stom, 17th century

And Abraham paid attention to the voice of Sarah. And Sarah, the wife of Abraham, took Hagar the Egyptian, her domestic slave, at the end of ten years [that] Abraham had been dwelling in the land of Canaan; and she gave her to Abraham, her husband, as a woman for him. (Genesis 16:2-3)

Sarah does not ask Hagar if she is willing to have intercourse with an 85-year-old man. The whole premise of slavery is that one person gives orders and the other must obey. Later books in the Torah establish some rights for Israelites who become slaves because of debt,2 but foreign slaves have fewer protections.  There is no limit to how long a foreign slave must serve, and the foreign slave is considered property that can be sold or inherited, like a herd of cattle.3

Today a world-wide consensus of opinion considers slavery grossly unethical, though it still occurs. By our own standards it is unethical for Sarah to own Hagar, but not by the standards of the Torah.

And he came into Hagar and she became pregnant. And she saw that she was pregnant, vateikal, her mistress was, in her eyes. (Genesis 16:4)

vateikal (וַתֵּקַל) = and she was diminished, of no account. (A form of the verb kalal, קלל. Various stems of this verb mean to be small and unimportant, to demean oneself, to declare a curse, to reduce, to shake something or someone.)

Hagar upsets the premise of slavery when she stops treating Sarah with deference. The Torah does not say exactly what Hagar does. Perhaps she continues to visit Abraham’s bed after she is pregnant. Perhaps she does not follow Sarah’s orders as thoroughly as she used to, or perhaps she complains. All these actions would be unwise, but they may not be unethical.

Sarah becomes enraged when her pregnant slave belittles her by acting above her station.

Then Sarah said to Abraham: “The cruelty I suffer from is on account of you! I myself placed my domestic slave in your bosom. Now she sees that she is pregnant, va-eikal in her eyes. May God judge between me and you!” Then Abraham said to Sarah: “Hey! Your domestic slave is in your hand. Do to her whatever is good in your eyes.” (Genesis 16:5-6)

va-eikal (וָאֵקַל) = and I am diminished, of no account. (Another conjugation of the verb kalal.)

From Sarah’s point of view, Abraham is guilty of encouraging Hagar to treat his real wife as if she has no status. Maybe he was unusually considerate of the slave in his bed. Maybe he continued to take Hagar to bed even after she was pregnant.4 Regardless of whether Abraham did anything to contribute to Hagar’s new attitude, he refuses to take any responsibility for her future welfare.

Yet by agreeing to impregnate Hagar, Abraham implicitly accepted some responsibility for her. She is the future mother of his child, and therefore he is morally obligated to protect her.


When Sarah tells Abraham “May God judge between me and you!” she means that the situation is not fair. I can imagine her thinking: It’s not fair that I lose both my slave and my husband’s attention, when I’m the one who made the arrangement in the first place. I never asked to be barren. I was only promoting God’s plan. Why should I suffer?

I can imagine Hagar thinking: It’s not fair that my mistress elevates me to the position of a concubine, and then snatches it away from me again. I never asked for this role, but now that I have it, why should I suffer?

And I can imagine Abraham thinking: It’s not fair that I’m forced to choose between these two women, between my lifelong companion and the mother of my child. I never asked for this mess. Why should I suffer?

The situation is unfair to all three characters, but no one deliberately creates an unfair situation—until Abraham tells Sarah “Do to her whatever is good in your eyes” and Sarah does it.

Sarah vataneha, and [Hagar] ran away from her. (Genesis 16:6)

vataneha (וַתְּעַנֶּהָ) = then (she) oppressed her, humiliated her, overpowered her, violated her. (A piel form of the verb anah, עָנַה = was wretched.)

The Torah outlaws humiliating or overpowering an Israelite slave,5 but not a foreign slave. Nevertheless, the use of the verb anah implies that Sarah’s behavior is unethical.  The Torah uses a piel stem of anah to describe the unfair working conditions of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, where they are the foreigners.6

Hagar runs away impulsively; she has no particular destination in mind, though she does head south, in the general direction of Egypt.  When she stops at a spring on the road and a messenger (a.k.a. an angel) from God asks her two questions, Hagar can only answer the first one.

Hagar and the Angel, by Rembrandt. 17th century

And he said: “Hagar, domestic slave of Sarah, where have you come from, and where are you going?” And she said: “Me? I am running away from my mistress, Sarah.” And the messenger of God said to her: “Return to your mistress, vehitani under her hand.” (Genesis 16:8-9)

vehitani (וְהִתְעַנִּי) = and submit to being humiliated or tormented. (An imperative hitpael form of the verb anah.)

But Hagar does not obey, at least not immediately. Since she is silent, the divine messenger adds that Hagar will have too many descendants to count. Hagar still does not respond. The messenger adds that her son will be like a wild ass, impossible to discipline or domesticate, fighting everyone. After hearing that, Hagar obeys and returns to Sarah. She is willing to project her desires on her son and let him be the rebel.

She may also be having second thoughts about running away. If continuing south meant that she would escape slavery and her son would not be born a slave, then that would be a better moral choice that obeying God. But Hagar may now realize that if she stays on the road, sooner or later someone else will capture and enslave her, or worse. In that case it would be better to return to Sarah and Abraham, who at least want to keep Hagar’s unborn child alive and well.

For whatever reason, Hagar makes the most ethical choice open to her in a bad situation.


Sarah accuses Hagar of belittling her, but actually both Sarah and Abraham belittle Hagar.  The treatment of foreign slaves varies even within their household.  Abraham trusts and respects one of his foreign slaves, Eliezer of Damascus, enough to promote him to the post of steward.  If Abraham remains childless, Eliezer will be his heir.7

On the other hand, Sarah does not respect Hagar.  She assigns Hagar to Abraham long enough for her to get pregnant, but then instead of promoting her to the status of a concubine she takes full control over her slave again.  Even then, Sarah is insecure about her own value relative to the value of the woman carrying Abraham’s child.  When Hagar does something that triggers  Sarah’s insecurity, she abuses the woman who became pregnant at her own command. Sarah does not master her own emotional reaction in order to treat Hagar more ethically.

Abraham ducks his responsibility to protect Hagar.  He looks the other way when his wife is cruel to her, and he fails to promote Hagar to concubine over Sarah’s head, even though in his society the mother of a man’s heir is normally a wife or concubine.8 Abraham is motivated primarily by a desire to avoid confrontation with Sarah.  He does not master his own emotional complex in order to treat Hagar more ethically.

Even when biblical characters do not consider whether slavery itself is immoral, they still face moral choices about individual actions. Today, even when heads of governments do not consider whether war itself is immoral, they still face moral choices about how they conduct war. Even when we do not transcend the evils that are commonplace in our societies, may we still strive to transcend our selfish interests and emotions in order to protect other human beings as much as we can.

  1. Pamela Tamarkin Reis, Reading the Lines: A fresh Look at the Hebrew Bible, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass., 2002, pp. 60-63.
  2. Exodus 21:2-11, Leviticus 25:39-43, Deuteronomy 15:12-17.
  3. Leviticus 25:44-46.
  4. Reis, p. 66-67.
  5. Leviticus 25:46 rules that one may not dominate an Israelite slave with violence.
  6. Genesis 15:13, Exodus 1:11-12, Deuteronomy 26:6-7.
  7. Genesis 15:2.
  8. Pilagesh (פִּילֶגֶשׁ) = concubine, lesser wife. Hagar is always called a shifchah (שִׁפְחָה) or an amah (אָמָה); both terms mean a female domestic slave. The term pilagesh first appears in Genesis 22:24, in a list of the children of Abraham’s brother Nachor: eight by wife, Milkah, and four by his concubine, Re-umah.  Abraham’s grandson Jacob has two wives, Rachel and Leah, who ask their domestic servants, Bilhah and Zilpah, to bear children to him. The Torah calls Bilhah and Zilpah Jacob’s domestic servants (Genesis 32:23), and later refers to Bilhah as Jacob’s pilagesh. All other references in the Hebrew Bible to a mother of a free man’s children call her either a wife or a concubine, not a slave.


Noach: Responses to Trauma

October 7, 2021 at 9:16 am | Posted in Acharey Mot, Noach | Leave a comment

When I finished the first draft of my book about moral psychology in Genesis, I realized that examining why most of the characters do the wrong thing was not enough.  I needed an ongoing argument about why humans find it so hard to take the high road out of Eden. Now I am doing more research and rewriting my book.

Meanwhile, here is an essay from my first version.  The Torah portion this week is Noach (the Hebrew for “Noah”).  Many people know about the flood and Noah’s ark, but not everyone knows what Noah did after the waters dried up and he let the animals out.

Drinking and Incest

Noah begins by following all of God’s directions; then he sees God drown all life on land.  After the devastation of the worldwide flood, one might expect Noah’s first crop to be a plant that can produce food in a single growing season.  Instead, the Torah says:

And Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard.  And he drank some of the wine, and he became drunk …  (Genesis 9:20-21)

Noah has to plan his drunkenness.  A grapevine cutting or rootstock must grow for about two years before it produces any grapes.  After that Noah has to wait while the grapes he crushes ferment into wine.

The Torah does not report Noah’s feelings, but he might be haunted by the deaths of everyone he knew outside his own immediate family.  (God told him to take only seven humans with him in the ark: his wife, his three sons, and his sons’ wives.)  Noah might have nightmares about children drowning.  He might even question the morality of his own behavior, and feel guilty for not trying to change God’s mind about flooding the world.

Noah’s attempt to escape into an altered state of consciousness, or unconsciousness, is understandable.  But his drunkenness subverts his ability to defend himself against incest.

Noah and Cham, mosaic, Basilica di San Marco, Venice, circa 1215

And [Noah] drank some of the wine, and he became drunk, and vayitgal in the middle of his tent.  And Cham, the father of Canaan, saw the ervah of his father and he told his two brothers outside.  (Genesis 9:20-22)

vayitgal (וַיִּתְגַּל) = he uncovered himself, exposed himself.  (The hitpael form of the verb galah, גָּלָה = uncover, reveal.)

ervah (עֶרְוָה) = nakedness.

A modern reader might wonder what is so bad about lying down naked in the privacy of your own tent—even if one of your sons barges in and sees you.  But in the Torah, to “uncover the nakedness” of someone is a euphemism for a sexual act.  The fifteen incest laws in the book of Leviticus use the same words for “uncover” and “nakedness” as the passage above.  The first law covers any kind of incest:

Nobody may come close to any blood-relation of his flesh legalot ervah.  I am God.  (Genesis 18:6)

legalot (לְגַלּוֹת) = to uncover.  (A piel form of the verb galah.)

The next law begins as if it is prohibiting a son from copulating with his father, then corrects itself to a heterosexual formula:

The ervah of your father, or the ervah of your mother lo tegaleih; she is your mother, lo tegaleih her ervah.  (Leviticus 18:7)

lo tegaleih (לֺא תְגַלֵּה) = you must not uncover.  (lo = not + a piel form of the verb galah.)

The incest laws are phrased in terms of a male perpetrator “uncovering” a passive female.  Noah is not entirely a passive victim; the Torah says he uncovers himself.  Only then does his son Cham take advantage of the opportunity.

Then Cham tells his brothers what just happened—an indication that his motive is to degrade his father in their eyes, not to seek sexual satisfaction outside his marriage.

Modern scholars have pointed out that this story of incest provides propaganda that denigrates both Egypt and Canaan, which are listed as descendants of Cham right after the Noah story.1  Similarly, the introduction to first list of incest laws in Leviticus is:

You must not do as it is done in the land of Egypt, where you dwelt; and you must not do as it is done in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. You must not follow their decrees.  (Leviticus 18:3)

When Noah wakes up and realizes what happened, he lashes out and curses “his youngest son”, who is called Canaan rather than Cham in the actual curse (probably an interpolation from another source):

Cursed be Canaan!

A slave of slaves

He will be to his brothers.  (Genesis 9:25)


Neither Noah nor his son Cham have learned anything from Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s protector?”  The whole human race after the flood consists of eight individuals in the same family.  They all count as brothers, for ethical purposes, and the story of Cain and Abel makes it clear that each one is responsible for protecting the others.  But Noah abandons responsibility for his family by deliberately drinking himself into a stupor, and Cham takes advantage of a chance to demean his father.


Noah pursues his own escape from trauma through inebriation, but he does not pay attention to the effects of trauma on his family.  Perhaps on his good days he offers a few words of comfort to his wife, his sons, his daughters-in-law.  But he either does not notice or does not address Cham’s anger.  Trapped in his own misery, Noah drinks and carelessly exposes himself.

Maybe he undresses because it is hot inside his tent.  (Cham, חָם = hot.)  But then his hot-headed son named Cham comes in.

Noah’s feeling of guilty despair is understandable.  But his self-absorption subverts his ability to recognize and address his son Cham’s problem.


While Noah is guilty of neglect, Cham is guilty of abuse.  Forcing a sexual act that the “partner” would avoid if he were sober is unethical because the perpetrator does not treat the victim as a fellow human being with rights and feelings.  Most human cultures also maintain that incest is unethical.  After the deed, Cham publicly dishonors his father, another ethical failure.2

What makes it hard for him to do the right thing and protect Noah instead of raping and degrading him?  Cham is hot with anger that the world was destroyed, just as Cain was hot with anger that his offering was not accepted.  Neither man can take out his anger on the actual perpetrator, God.  So just as Cain vents his anger on Abel, Cham vents his anger on Noah.  He can blame his father for following directions and enabling God to drown the world.

Cham’s angry resentment prevents him from feeling empathy for the old man.  It also prevents him from stopping to think about whether raping and telling is good or evil.


Then Noah becomes guilty of uttering the curse against Cham (or Canaan).  A father’s blessing or curse has power in the book of Genesis.  By cursing Cham/Canaan, Noah dooms him and his descendants to enslavement—and also introduces slavery into the reborn world.3

Until this point, Noah has been submissive, following God’s instructions without question, making no effort to save any human or animal God has not mentioned, and figuring out that the extra animals God ordered could be used in a burnt offering to appease God.4

The Torah does not give us a clue about Noah’s attitude toward his own family until he wakes and realizes what Cham has done.  Then he lashes out with a curse, an act of revenge for his humiliation.  He does not stop to mull over the long-term effects of his curse.5


Naturally the trauma of witnessing mass destruction can breed negative emotions including guilt, despair, and anger.  These emotions can all subvert our ability to make good moral choices, especially if, like Cain, we do not recognize them as beasts crouching outside our doors.

Noah’s Drunkenness, by James J.J. Tissot, 1902

Yet Cham’s brothers Sheim and Yefet, who also witnessed the destruction of their world, choose a modest act of kindness after Cham tells them about Noah’s shame.

And Sheim and Yefet took a cloak and placed it over their shoulders and walked backward, and they covered the erveh of their father, [which] they did not see.  (Genesis 9:23)

Even when we suffer from trauma, we owe it to our family members to stop ourselves from hurting them, and find acts of kindness we can do instead.

  1. Genesis 10:6.
  2. Dishonoring a parent was serious wrongdoing in ancient Israelite culture. The ten commandments require honoring parents in both Exodus 20:12 and Deuteronomy 5:16, and Leviticus 20:9 says anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.
  3. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, Schocken Books, New York, 2002, p. 205.
  4. Genesis 7:23, 8:20-21.
  5. For the author of this part of Noah’s story, the curse probably served as a justification for the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites many centuries later.


Bereishit: Bad Stewardship

September 30, 2021 at 6:32 pm | Posted in Bereishit | Leave a comment

What happened to my book about moral psychology in Genesis?  I finished it—then realized that examining why most of the characters in Genesis do the wrong thing is not enough.  I needed an ongoing argument about why humans find it so hard to take the high road out of Eden.

Now I am doing more research and rewriting my book.  Meanwhile, here is an essay from my first version.  The Torah portion this week is Bereishit (“In a beginning”), and tells about the beginning of everything, including good and evil.


Humans Dominate the Earth

And God made beasts of the land according to their type, and cattle by their type, and all creeping things of the earth by their type; and God saw that it was tov. (Genesis 1:25)

tov (טוֹב) = good; functional, attractive, beneficial, or virtuous.

Fourth Day of Creation, Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

In the first creation story, God sees that seven creations are tov: light (day 1); the separation of dry land from waters (day 3); plants (day 3); sun, moon, and stars (day 4); swimming and flying animals (day 5); land animals excluding humans (day 6); and the whole world (day 6).1  In all seven of these divine observations, tov means functional, attractive, or beneficial for some divine plan, but not virtuous.  Stars and fish are not moral agents.

All the land animals, including humankind, are made on the same day, but God only considers the other animals tov.  When God makes humans, God blesses them, but does not see that they are tov.

And God created humankind in [God’s] image; in the image of God [God]created it; male and female [God] created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth vekhivshuha; urdu over the fish of the sea and over the flyers of the skies and over every beast that crawls on the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28)

vekhivshuha (וְכִבְשֻׁהָ) = and subjugate her, make her subservient, rape her, bring her under control. (An imperative form of the verb kavash, כָּבַשׁ.)

urdu (וּרְדוּ) = and subdue, dominate, rule over. (An imperative form of the verb radah, רָדָה.)

Humankind is the only creation that gets a blessing and a directive from God.

Why does God tell humans to subjugate and rule over a perfectly good world? What if they ruin the earth and its animals?

A Garden of Eden by Jan Brueghel the Younger, 1630

If God had created an imperfect world and given humankind the job of improving it, humans might have organized an uncivilized wilderness into parklands and gardens. The Garden of Eden might have served as a model, as well as being the source of humankind’s awareness of the categories of good and evil. But God does not create an imperfect world; God sees that the entire creation is already “very good”.


What if God expected humans to be good stewards of the earth? Since humans have the free will to choose between good and evil actions, and since we have the intelligence to learn and extrapolate from experience, we could have multiplied only until we filled the earth without overtaxing its resources. And we could have husbanded the earth rather than raped it.

Instead, our widespread adherence to a red meat diet led to overgrazing, which caused desertification (that’s why the Sahara is so big) and deforestation (e.g. to create more pastureland in 20th century South America). Our demand for lumber at unsustainable rates has led to millennia of clear-cutting, which changes biomes and causes more deforestation. (The bible praises the cedars of Lebanon, which used to be a vast forest and now consist of isolated urban trees and endangered wooded enclaves high in the mountains.) During the last century humans have also poisoned the air, soil, and water, and released greenhouse gases that are causing permanent climate change. Worldwide, humans have had neither the right intuitions nor the wisdom to be good stewards of the earth.

What if God, who gives humankind free will in the Garden of Eden, does not know whether humans will be good stewards or not?  What if God’s instruction to subjugate and dominate the earth and its animals is a temporary authorization, conditional upon good behavior?

Some classic commentators have proposed that at first humans were afraid of other animals and needed to be encouraged to control them by using their superior intelligence.2 The project of bringing wilderness under cultivation must also have seemed daunting.

But by the time humankind achieved the power to alter the earth’s ecology, the divine instruction to the first humans was no longer useful.

Bereishit Rabbah, a 5th-century C.E. collection of commentary, presents one rabbi’s opinion that people with merit will dominate the animals, but people without merit will descend to the state of being dominated by animals—perhaps by the beastly side of their own natures.3

This interpretation is based on an ambiguous word in God’s initial remark about letting humankind rule over the earth and all the animals:

And God said: “Let us make humankind in our image, like our likeness, veyirdu the fish of the sea and over the flyers of the skies and over the big animals and over all the earth and over all the crawlers that crawl on the earth.” (Genesis/Bereishit 1:26)

veyirdu (וְיִרְדּוּ) = and they shall subdue, dominate, rule over. (An imperfect form of the verb radah, רָדָה)

The word veyirdu is another form of the verb radah only when it is spelled with the Masoretic vowel pointings added to the Torah in the 6th to 10th century C.E.. But there were no vowel pointings in the Torah scrolls the Masoretes annotated.4  Therefore commentators are free to interpret a biblical passage as if one of the words originally had different vowels. Bereishit Rabbah is perhaps the earliest, but not the only, commentary that spells the word v-y-r-d-u as veyeirdu.5

veyeirdu (וְיֵרְדוּ) = and they shall go down, descend; and they might descend. (An imperfect form of the verb yarad, יָרַד).6

According to this interpretation, God still tells humankind to subjugate and dominate the earth and its animals, but only after predicting that humans might descend to the level of unthinking animals themselves.


In the 21st century it looks as if our beastly natures have won. Too many of us have acted in ways that control the earth without thinking about the consequences. Yet human intelligence could also be used for restoring the earth, or at least minimizing its degradation. What we and all the other animals and plants on earth need now is for every human leader, in governments and industries, to choose ethical actions over selfish short-term benefits.

Humans already rule over the earth, for good or bad. Our rule has already caused global climate change, with some areas flooding and others burning up.  Our only hope now is to stop choosing what seems good, tov, because it is functional, attractive, or beneficial to only a few individuals, and start choosing what is virtuous because it reduces the harm to all humans and all living creatures on earth.

  1. Genesis 1:4, 1:10, 1:12, 1:18, 1:21, 1:25, and 1:31.
  2. e.g. Nachalas Yaakov in Siftei Chakhamim, a 17th-century collection of commentary; Haamek Davar, a 19th-century commentary by Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin.
  3. Bereishit Rabbah 8:12.
  4. At services today Jews still read out loud from parchment Torah scrolls on which scribes have copied the letters without vowel pointings or other diacritical marks indicating pronunciation (nikkudim).
  5. e.g. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki), and Jacob ben Asher (13th-century rabbi) in Kitzur Baal Haturim, Nachalas Yaakov (ibid.).
  6. Biblical Hebrew has no past, present, or future tense. Veyeirdu is in the imperfect aspect, which means that its action has not been completed. Often the context indicates that an imperfect verb in Biblical Hebrew should be translated as a future tense verb in English, but in this case the imperfect verb yeirdu could be translated equally well as “they will descend”, “they shall descend”, “they could descend”, or “they might descend”.


Sukkot & Kohelet: Rejoicing Without Justice

September 24, 2021 at 12:14 am | Posted in Ecclesiastes/Kohelet, Emor, Psalms/Tehilim, Sukkot | Leave a comment

Life on earth is the only life humans get, according the Hebrew Bible (except the second-century B.C.E. book of Daniel1).  The souls of all dead humans, good and bad, go to Sheol, an underground place of oblivion.  There is no reward or punishment for human deeds after death.

The reward for virtue in most of the Hebrew Bible is a long and healthy life with male descendants and a good reputation.  The punishment for wicked deeds is an early death, the early death of one’s children, or being forgotten.

Do not get inflamed over evildoers;

            Do not envy those who do wrong.

For quickly they will dry up like grass;

            Like green plants they will wither.  (Psalm 37:1-2)

In a little while the wicked one will be no more;

            When you look at his place, he will not be there.

But the humble will take possession of the earth

            And delight in abundant well-being.  (Psalm 37:10-11)

For the wicked will be shattered,

            But God supports the virtuous.  (Psalm 37:17)

In the Psalms, God is omnipotent and just.  If bad things happen to good people, they are temporary setbacks, and only those who have done something wrong suffer sickness and beg God for mercy.

At Yom Kippur services, Jews pray to a God who tempers justice with mercy.  Besides begging God to forgive us for our misdeeds, we chant God’s self-description to Moses in the “thirteen attributes”, including “a compassionate and gracious god, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and dependability.”2

Four days after the sun sets on Yom Kippur we begin the week of Sukkot, when the Torah commands us to “rejoice before God, your God, seven days”.3  Rejoicing seems appropriate after the work of atonement is done, the last crops have been harvested, and the grapes have been pressed for new wine.  Life is good.

But the Torah reading for Sukkot also says:

In sukkot you must dwell for seven days.  All the citizens of Israel must dwell in sukkot, so that your (future) generations will know that I made the Israelites dwell in sukkot when I brought them out from the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 23:42-43)

Modern American sukkah

sukkot (סֻכֺּת) = temporary shelters; huts made of branches and mats to provide shade for harvesters in fields and vineyards, for travelers, or for cattle.  (The roofs of ritual sukkot must provide more shade than sun, but still let in any rain.)

So we rejoice even though our shelters are temporary, our harvest is temporary, and our lives are temporary.  During Sukkot we read the book of Ecclesiastes/Kohelet, which begins:

Haveil of havalim, said Kohelet.

          Haveil of havalim! Everything is havel.  (Ecclesiastes/Kohelet 1:2)

haveil (הֲבֵל), havel (הָבֶל), or hevel (הֶבֶל) = puff of air, vapor; ephemeral, futile, fleeting.  (“Vanity” in the King James Bible.  Plural: havalim (הֲבָלִים).)

All human achievements and human lives are as temporary as puff of air.  Meanwhile the seasons go around forever, like the cycles of the sun, the winds, and the water.

And there is nothing new under the sun.  (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Furthermore Kohelet observes that wisdom and foolishness, virtue and wickedness, make no difference in the fate of human beings.  Kohelet does not question God’s omnipotence, and refers to God as judging humans according to their virtue, but concludes that humans cannot change the quality or length of their lives through good deeds or religious observances.  God has predetermined everything.

And I said to myself: The virtuous and the wicked God will judge …  God sifts them out only to show them they are beasts.  Because the fate of the sons of humankind and the fate of beasts are one fate, since this one dies and that one dies.  The spirit of the human has no advantage over the beast, since everything is hevel.  They all go to one place, they all come from the dust and they all return to the dust.  (Ecclesiasters 3:17-20)

Humans die like beasts.  But does God grant virtuous humans any of the biblical rewards during their lifetimes—

—by  giving them longer lives?

I have seen everything in my days of hevelThere is a virtuous one perishing in his virtue, and there is a wicked one living long in his evil.  (Ecclesiastes 7:15)

—by giving them descendants to inherit what they built?

And I hated everything I earned from my toil that I was toiling under the sun, that I would leave it to the human who will come after me.  And who knows whether he will be wise or foolish?  But he will control everything I earned from my toil that I toiled, and that I gained by wisdom under the sun.  This, too, is havel.  (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19)

—or by giving them renown in the memories of those who follow?

There is no remembrance of the wise or of the fool.  For it is already certain that in the days to come everything will be forgotten.  (Ecclesiastes 2:16)

After examining what actually happens on earth, “under the sun”, Kohelet concludes that dispensing justice is simply not something that God does.

Then is there any point in avoiding evil?

Kohelet considers any pleasure in life an unpredictable gift from God.4  But he recommends against either drowning in despair or drowning in sensuality.  The wisest course of action is to enjoy simple physical pleasures, friendship, and love.

Go, eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a good heart, because long ago God was favorable …  At all times let your clothes be clean and let your head be oiled.  (Ecclesiastes 9:7-8)

Friendship is also valuable.

Better are a pair than one alone, for they get good recompense for their toil.  For if they fall, one can raise his friend, but if one falls alone there is no second one to raise him.  Also if a pair lie down together they are warm, but for one alone there is no warmth.  And if one is attacked, the pair can stand against [the attacker].  (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

Succumbing to a woman who is a sexual predator leads to bitterness, not enjoyment.5  But if one happens to have a good spouse, that is another reason to rejoice.

Enjoy life with a woman whom you love all the hevel days of your life that have been given to you under the sun.  (Ecclesiastes 9:9)


According to Kohelet, the only good that humans can do is to appreciate the good things in their ephemeral lives.  But later Jewish tradition adds that in situations even when God is not righting wrongs, humans should do what they can to improve the world.  Kohelet notes the violent oppression that humans commit, but does not advocate taking any action to reduce it.6  Nevertheless, Kohelet says:

All that you find your hand has the power to do, do it, because there is no doing or learning or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.  (Ecclesiastes 9:10)

I believe that the best life, however fleeting, is one in which we not only enjoy the physical pleasure, friendship, and love that come our way, but also do everything within our own power to improve life for other humans, and for all living things under the sun.

  1. Daniel 12:1-3 describes the resurrection of at least some of the dead, perhaps in messianic times. (See my post Vayeilekh: The End of Days.)  Another work written in the second century B.C.E., the non-canonical Book of Enoch, describes the separation of virtuous souls from wicked souls in preparation for the resurrection of the virtuous and the torture of sinners.  Only after the first century C.E. did the writers of the Christian New Testament and the rabbis of the Talmud imagine an afterlife in which good souls are rewarded in a heaven and bad souls suffer in a hell.
  2. Exodus 34:6.
  3. Leviticus 23:40. The Torah reading for the first day of Sukkot is Leviticus/Vayikra 22:26-23:44.
  4. Ecclesiastes 3:12-14.
  5. Ecclesiastes 7:26.
  6. Ecclesiastes 4:1-3.

Psalm 130 & Yom Kippur: Waiting for Forgiveness

September 11, 2021 at 11:12 pm | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Yom Kippur | Leave a comment

When we are guilty of harming another person, we can often acknowledge what we did, apologize to the person we wronged, offer to make amends, and promise not to do it again.  Then our human victim may forgive us.

But what if we have wronged God, or the divine spirit within us?  Is forgiveness even possible?

One answer is found in Psalm 130, traditionally read between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which begins this year at sunset on Wednesday.

Levites singing on the temple steps, by James J.J. Tissot

(A song of ascending steps.)

From the depths I called to you, God:

            “My lord, hear my voice!

May your ears be attentive to the voice of my plea.”

If you kept a watch over avonot, my lord Yah,

            Who could stand?

However, forgiveness is yours

            So that tivarei.

I hoped for God,

            My soul hoped,

                        And I waited for God’s word.

My soul [watches] for my lord

            More than watchmen for the morning,

                        Watching for the morning.  (Psalm 130:1-6)

avonot (עֲוֺנֺת) = wrongdoing, immoral activity, intentional sins.  (Singular avon, עָוֹן.)

tivarei (תִּוָּרֵא) = you will be feared, you will inspire awe.  (From the root yarei, יָרֵא  = was afraid of, was in awe of, was reverent of.)

The speaker (whom I will call “they”) cries out to God from the depths of mental suffering due to guilt.  How can they forgive themselves for deliberately doing something morally wrong?  Their only hope is that God will forgive them.  But at first they cannot quite believe God would grant forgiveness out of compassion.  So the speaker hypothesizes two other motivations:

1) If God held every human being accountable for every avon, nobody would be left standing, left alive.  Perhaps the speaker recalls that God swore not to destroy the world again after the Flood, even though “the inventions of the human mind are evil from youth”.4  Therefore God must look the other way sometimes.

2) Forgiveness is one of the ways God inspires awe.  Being forgiven by God seems incredible to the speaker, so amazing they would be dumbstruck and trembling.  And this is just what God wants; throughout the bible God asks to be regarded with fear and awe.  Instead of rewarding awe with forgiveness, maybe God forgives in order to earn the awe.

The last two verses of Psalm 130 switch from a guilty individual to the Israelites as a whole.  Being human, they have all transgressed in one way or another.  But when the speaker steps back from their own need for forgiveness and embraces a larger perspective, they realize that God forgives out of kindness.

Israel will wait for God

            Because with God is steadfast kindness

                        And abundant redemption.

And [God] will ransom Israel

            From all its avonot.    (Psalm 130:7-8)

Despite all the times the Israelites disobeyed God by worshiping idols, ignoring the poor, and committing injustice, God does redeem the Israelites from their captivity in Babylonia in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.  The speaker in Psalm 130 hopes that this means it is God’s nature to forgive.  They wait and watch for the morning of a new day, a new life, that God will grant them.


If we have not already made atonement with human beings whom we wronged or who wronged us during the past year, Jews try to do it before Yom Kippur starts.  We do not always succeed.  I have found myself apologizing to people who don’t take me seriously, and to people who don’t remember the incident that I feel guilty about.  Often the only people who ask me for forgiveness are the ones who have always been kind and respectful, while those who actually hurt me never apologize.  But I do the best I can to make amends, clearing the way to seeking atonement with God on Yom Kippur.

How do we wrong God?

drawing by Dugald Stewart Walker (1883-1937)

In the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, the high priest atones for the whole community in the Torah portion Acharei Mot (which is chanted at Yom Kippur services) through a ritual involving two goats.  (See my post Acharey Mot: Azazel.)

And Aaron shall both his hands on the head of the live goat and confess upon it all the avonot of the Israelites and all their insubordinations, for all their chatot, and put them on the head of the goat.  And it shall be sent by the hand of a designated man into the wilderness.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 16:21)

chatot (חטֺּאת) = wrongdoing, misdeeds, lapses, unintentional offenses.  (Singular chatat, חַטָּאת or cheit, חֵטְא.  The root of the noun is the verb chata (חָטָא) = missed the mark, offended, was at fault, was guilty.)

In Leviticus, rules for purity and rituals, as well as ethical principles, are labeled as avonot and chatot.  These words for intentional and unintentional offenses are applied to everything from touching an animal that died of natural causes to hating one’s neighbor.1

But in the liturgy for Yom Kippur, we wrong God only when we succumb to evil thoughts and unethical behavior.

Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur, by Maurycy Gottlieb

On Yom Kippur, Jews chant two confessional prayers again and again: the Ashamnu and the Al Cheit, both extant in the 9th century C.E.2   The Ashamnu (אָשַׁמְנוּ = We have become guilty), is a list of 23 immoral actions that begins with betrayal, robbery, and slander, and ends with leading others astray.  After confessing that we, as a group, have been wicked in all these ways, the prayer asks God to “make atonement for us for all our chatot, forgive us for all our avonot, and pardon us for all our insubordinations”.

The Al Cheit (עַל חֵטא = For the wrong) is a list of both immoral actions and bad attitudes (such as arrogance and recklessness) that lead to wrongdoing.  Each line begins with:

Al cheit shechatanu lefanekha (עַל חֵטא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ) = For the wrong that we have done wrong in your presence.

“Your presence” means the presence of God.  Some people think of God as the ruler of the universe; for others, God is the “still, small voice” inside.3  Either way, God notices the bad deeds and wicked thoughts we are guilty of, even when no humans do.  And our souls or psyches are affected.

After each group of six or more bad deeds or attitudes in the Al Cheit, we sing this refrain:

Ve-a’ kulam, Eloha selichot, selach lanu, machal lanu, kaper lanu! (וְעַל כֻּלָּם אֱלוֹהַּ סְלִיחוֹת סְלַח לָנוּ מְחַל לָנוּ כַּפֶּר לָנוּ) = And for all of them, God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, reconcile with us!

We confess that we are guilty as a group, and we wait, like Israel in Psalm 130, for God’s forgiveness.

Yet it is impossible not to think of our individual moral failings when we spend all day praying for forgiveness.


How do we wrong God?

If humans are made in God’s image,5  then we wrong God both when we wrong other humans, and when we damage our own souls.  I believe we degrade our souls when we treat other people as objects, when we selfishly or carelessly hurt or neglect or endanger any of our fellow human beings.

If we are lucky, we realize what we did wrong—maybe the same year, maybe many years later.  Then we feel guilty.  We can make any amends that are possible, and we can sincerely change our ways.  Then we only need to wait until we hear the still, small voice of God releasing us from guilt.

May we all find our way to forgiveness.

  1. See Leviticus 4:2-3, 4:13, 5:1-6, 7:18, and 24:15 on transgressing ritual laws, and Leviticus 18:6-25, 19:17, and 19:20-22 on transgressing ethical laws.
  2. In the Siddur Rav Amram, compiled by Amram ben Sheshna, the Gaon of Sura.
  3. 1 Kings 19:12. When God crosses in front of the cave where the prophet Elijah is hiding, there is a windstorm, an earthquake, and a fire, but God is not in any of these things.  After the fire Elijah hears “a thin, murmuring sound” or “a soft murmuring voice”, and knows God is there.
  4. Genesis 8:21.
  5. According to Genesis 1:27 and 5:1.
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